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Music Review: Lori McKenna – Unglamorous

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A few weeks ago, very near the end of my trip out to upstate New York, my CD finished and I did something very unusual: I turned on the radio. Normally a futile action, it's even worse in that particular area of the country. Most of the signals are weak and end up fading out after a few static-filled minutes. As luck would have it, a fairly strong signal brought in this fascinating story about a search for the object of a collection of old letters written circa World War II. Entitled "Goat On A Cow," the story pulled together the seemingly improbable topics of the world of correspondence and, well, a goat standing on a cow's back. Journalist Laura Starecheski had me mesmerized for the last fifteen minutes of the ride.

So what's the big deal? Well, during that time period I totally lost any sense of self. I was gone. For me, that kind of experience (or maybe lack of experience) is why I read, write, and listen.

It's also what happened to me the first time I heard Lori McKenna. I had just pulled into the parking lot at work and the song "Hardly Speaking A Word" came on the radio. After switching off the truck's engine, I sat there listening as 'I' quickly dissolved, gone… into the music. What a song, what a voice. A few minutes later, I sat at my desk shaking my head in amazement at the fact that McKenna was not (yet) famous.

That song came from her debut record Paper Wings and Halo. McKenna has put out several CD's since then, including the stellar follow-up album Pieces Of Me from which Faith Hill took the song Fireflies. Unglamorous, McKenna's major label debut, finds her in different company, with (just a few) co-writers and both Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore at the producer's chairs. This makes me nervous. McKenna's songs have a purity and intimacy that doesn't need to be messed with.

The good news is that the "messing" was right-minded and the production mostly light. This is still a Lori McKenna record.

In fact, let's start with the title track. Co-written with Liz Rose, the theme "we're regular people" is a comfortable one. While the full band behind McKenna is at first distracting, the ode to everyday struggles shines through. The story is painted out with short observations of the ordinary: "How beautiful – gravel road leading to a front door/How beautiful – old wool socks on a bedroom floor." Yes, comfortable is the word.

As I listened to Unglamorous, there were admittedly some reservations about the musical change of circumstances. I didn't like the idea of shared songwriting credits, of a full band, of strings, of backing vocals (even if they do come from the likes of Kelly Willis and Buddy Miller). But it seems that the changes mostly serve to amplify the power of McKenna's songs and voice. The closing "Leaving This Life" is proof. It's a powerful take on the death of her mother, where the message and the voice are all that you hear.

Elsewhere, the accompaniment is more stripped down. There are several songs about romance gone sour ("I Know You," "How To Survive," "Your Next Lover"), and love that's burning white hot ("I'm Not Crazy"). My favorite in all of this is "Falter." Reminiscent of Norah Jones' "Humble Me," it's a sad vignette of a life wasted. It's also a musical prayer flag, sending out a message of the hope for humanity's improvement. Can songs change the society they're born in? I think so.

I still have a fear that Lori McKenna is going to be swallowed by the Nashville machine. From her songs and what I've read about her, she seems to be far too grounded for that. But still, if McKenna gets to stand on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and send "Hardly Speaking A Word" and "Falter" out into the night, then there's nothing to worry about.

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About Mark Saleski